Digital World: All in the family

Apple’s long-term philosophical bet – keeping a tight lid on development to ensure a superior user experience – has paid off.

By DAVID SHAMAH
July 12, 2010 23:01
The Jerusalem Post

ipod 311. (photo credit: Bloomberg)

 
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With so many people out there in possession of an Apple-made device – iPhones of various generations and now iPads – it would behoove us to examine just what it is that makes Apple tick. Millions of people have iPhones, and tens of millions want them. Why?

In a recent US poll I read, 20 percent of people surveyed who said they were planning to upgrade their phones said they were planning to buy an iPhone. The numbers for the iPad, although it is much younger, are just as impressive. Why? Did Steve Jobs slip us Mickey when we weren’t watching, the better to convince us that we cannot live without Apple products?

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In my opinion, the popularity of all Apple devices is due to a philosophical decision the company made a long time ago and has stuck to. Apple, from Day 1, has built its products with the intent of offering a “full package” to users: hardware, operating system and content. Of course, Apple ultimately decides what content you get, but losing that “freedom to compute” doesn’t seem to bother anyone. Just the opposite, in fact.

I’ve been with the “Apple family” since its now numerous progeny were in diapers. I started out with the infant Mac XL (if anyone remembers those) way back in the 1980s, moved on to the teenager-ish Mac SE, Mac CX and early iMacs, and eventually on to the current configuration of the family.

In fact, I’m transgenerational in my Apple affiliation: I have a “big guy” (an iMac), a couple of “young bucks” (Mac Minis and Macbooks), “junior” (the iPad) and, of course, “baby” (the iPhone). So I guess that makes me as familiar as anyone with how the family is run.

It’s a well-run and tightly organized family: to the extent that some would call it dysfunctional, in some respects. One thing about iPhones and iPads that irks many people is the closed universe that Apple has built to manage the devices. The only place you can get official applications for iPads and iPhones is from the Apple App Store; all applications used on these devices must be approved by Apple, the better to ensure the proper “customer experience,” says the company.

And that, it seems, is what distinguishes the Apple line from its competition.



For in truth, Apple has been zealous in guarding its “user experience” from the time it came out with its first Macs. The “closed environment,” which protects users from the “outside world” and is managed by the policy makers at Apple, was already greatly in evidence in the earliest versions of the Macintosh operating system.

The Mac OS was (and is) even more closed than Windows, making it harder for programmers to “hook” into the operating system.

Compare that system to Windows, with its wide-open registry, where programmers were able to routinely integrate their applications – whether well-written or not – into the OS.

As a result of those differences, and that philosophy, Windows and Mac users had significantly different user experiences over the years. One of the biggest complaints Mac users had back in the ’80s and ’90s, for example, was the lack of freeware and shareware for their computers, compared to the reams of freebies available to Windows users.

As a dedicated Mac user back then, I remember combing the depths of download sites looking for free applications that did – whatever! It didn’t matter what they did, as long as they were free. And those finds were few and far between. It was like you were keeping “kosher” – you couldn’t load up the cheap stuff on your computer, and the applications that had “supervision” (i.e., that were able to integrate into the Mac OS) cost more.

Even with the programs you had to pay for, the Mac versions were usually released much later and were far more expensive. But there was another side of the equation: By making it harder to break through the gates, Apple ensured that Macs were relatively free of bad programs, such as viruses.

How far we have traveled, in terms of content. There are more than 200,000 apps in the iPhone/iPad App Store, many of them free. The “freemium” model – where users get a free limited version of an application and pay to unlock more functions and features – seems to be the one most writers of cellphone applications have adopted. And most of the applications that do cost money are quite cheap, most costing an average of just a couple of dollars.

So it would seem that Apple’s long-term philosophical bet – keeping a tight lid on development to ensure a superior user experience – has paid off. Ever since the iPhone first came out, developers have been falling over themselves to come up with apps for the device, and consumers have been falling over themselves to buy them.

The same holds true for the iPad.

After selling about 3 million of the things in barely three months, Apple expects some 30 million people around the world to have them by the end of next year. And while many of these untold millions may not be fully aware of the “Apple Way,” they are surely aware that their consumption of nearly all content – apps, music, videos, movies – will be tightly controlled by Apple.

These people are entering into the deal voluntarily; they have no problem with Apple controlling what they can and can’t do with their devices.

And while it may be tempting to advocate for “freedom of choice,” you have to admit that Apple has a point: The reason iPhones and iPads are in such demand is because they just work. The UI is simple and elegant, the apps are available and work as promised, and the danger of getting hit with a virus is extremely low. In that sense, Apple users have traded in freedom for security, an apt comparison for our terrorized age.

As I mentioned, I, too, am “guilty” of allowing my “freedom to compute” to be compromised. I haven’t broken into any of my devices (i.e., reprogrammed them to install applications not carried in the App Store), meaning that I am relatively satisfied with the package I am getting with the Apple family: functionality, reliability and safety.

And that’s what the teeming millions are looking for. Despite all the talk about competing devices, whether phones or e-book readers, Apple has nothing to worry about.

History has proven that when it comes to computers and devices, people don’t want freedom, they want to be led by a “benevolent despot,” a role Apple is more than willing to fulfill.

www.digital.newzgeek.com

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